Zero Year: Hitting historians in the feels

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Warning! Contains spoilers for Batman #24 in The New 52!

Lately, it has occurred to me that being a historian is the saddest profession in the world. This is because no matter my dedication – the historic documents I read, the archives I visit, the photographs I look at – I 27 Batman Covermay only experience the past in the present. I will never know what it was like to run, helter-skelter from a schoolyard to the nearest newsstand in May 1939; to hand over my shiny ten cents in exchange for what was waiting for me and millions of other kids – the first sighting of Batman, ready to show the world what the opposite of cowardly and superstitious meant. So, the cover of the original Detective Comics #27 has never felt like mine. It belongs to someone else; an eleven year-old child born long before me.

At least, that’s what I thought until October this year. You see, I am not like some comic readers. I don’t read previews and generally avoid other such glimpses of art and story. Also, I don’t buy the same comics each month due to money restrictions. Furthermore, because my interests lie so deep in the past, I assumed that I wouldn’t find too much to keep me in ‘The New 52!’ A kind of historian’s snobbery, I suppose. So, up to this time my reading of new Batman stopped after Volume One – The Court of Owls story arc. I had thoroughly enjoyed that, but there were other things to buy, such as 1930s Sandman stories and also my MA history dissertation to complete. However, my attention was drawn to some fuss online about a new Batsuit in Batman #24, and I thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll treat myself this month. I’ll buy an issue…’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was unprepared for what was waiting for me. Even though the front cover made it obvious, even though I knew that Zero Year focussed on his origin, I was innocent still – unknowing, no better than a child. So in my state of wide-open, infantile ignorance, I turned the page and saw this:

24 batman 27 homageI think I may have stared at him for twenty minutes. I could not move. Snyder and Capullo had granted my wish. They transported back to 1939, made me eleven years of age and presented Batman to me for the very first time. And though he seemed completely new, that picture also called forth everything I knew about him and set it against an amber-coloured sky. It was like he was made just for me – familiar, yet original.

So perhaps that’s how kids felt in 1939, like all their birthdays and Christmases and Halloweens had come at once. Now they had something new to play with, yet this something new they loved all the more because he was secretly what they’d been waiting for. Batman was an innovation rooted in their cultural past, formed out of their shared experiences of growing up in 1930s America. He was the absolute hero for their time. Therefore, this picture not only gave me my own first sighting of Batman but also managed to sum up the underlying premise of my research. Namely, that 1939 and Batman came together for a reason. The world was waiting for the Dark Knight and didn’t even know it.

Further Work

This post was a simple fan’s letter of love for Zero Year. However silly and non-academic it seems, it begged me to write it. However, publishing this post and reading Zero Year has made me think about how history works in DC comics. Next week, I shall be providing a more in-depth exploration of this theme.

A Batman to call their own

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Before you venture further, please note that this article is full of SPOILERS regarding Batman in The New 52! (I am compelled always to include the !) up to and including #25. So please don’t read on if that is going to bother you.

In 2013 DC released the Zero Year story arc. It covers several issues of Batman and also ties in other DC titles. Zero Year covers Batman’s origin – his transition from being a non-costumed vigilante to donning the cape and cowl. However, this is not the first time we have read such a story. This tale was first told in Batman’s seventh appearance in Detective Comics – #33 November 1939. Since then, Batman’s beginning has been repeated multiple times, most notably by Frank Miller in Batman: Year One. This begs the question – why? To some (and I’ve seen comments online expressing this) it seems a tiresome, lazy exercise in plot repetition. Why have DC sought to repeat Batman’s genesis again in Zero Year?

Here is the cynical answer; one that strikes me in my darkest hours: MARKETING. That single word could sum up all research on Batman’s 75 years. Batman is the ‘cash-cow’ of DC Comics and Warner Bros. – a mature product that still makes profits. As part of managing the product life cycle of The Bat, DC recognizes that customers buy into Batman at different points in their lives. The main entry point to comic reading is the 15-25 year old demographic. This age group is also a big consumer of other types of media – video games, cinema, Blu-ray – and thus are likely to buy other Batman merchandise to go along with their comic. Therefore, DC created Zero Year in a company-wide effort to ensnare young people and their money. Boo-hiss! How cynical! How awful! And how utterly in keeping with the history of the major comic publishers, where some of the first-ever comic books published were advertisement give-aways.

But in these dark hours when the Marketing Joker laughs in my face at my ‘SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!’ gullibility, someone always comes to save me. A pair of opaque white eyes flash past me in the darkness, a gloved fist swings through the gloom, and when he meets with my cowardly and superstitious tormentor he knocks it sideways. This is because – in spite of such cynical and awful corporatism – Batman means something to me; something special and unique. This uniqueness is derived, not only from everything I know of him, but also everything I know of me. I bring my own beliefs, my own values to bear upon his broad shoulders and he carries them superbly. In doing so, I am no different to any other fan – we all have our own Batman.

So, let’s give another answer to why Zero Year exists; a reason as valid as any other. That is:

New readers want Batman’s story told to them, in their way, for them to call their own.

Therefore, in order to give new readers in the target demographic their own Batman, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have done this in the most direct way possible. They have created a Batman origin story where he acts like a 25 year-old man. And in doing so, Messrs. Snyder and Capullo have provided a real contrast to the two seminal texts on Batman’s origin – Detective Comics #33 and Batman: Year One. But this fact is also very interesting. Why is youthfulness so absent in these earlier versions?

Readers know that Batman was once a young person because of his all-important origin stories. Canon states that Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered when Bruce was eight. The 1939 original does not give Bruce’s age explicitly when he decides on the costume, but by inference from other text within the story, it seems that he is 23 years old here:

Detective-33-BatIn Batman: Year One Bruce’s age is given as 25:

Batman Year OneAs you can see, Bruce appears in desperate need of a facial in both of these representations. Readers would be forgiven for thinking he was 35, not 25. As well as his features, Batman does not act in an archetypal youthful manner either. This is because Batman is not a joyful figure; he has a great responsibility to endure. Therefore, youth is represented by the Robins, by the Batgirls. So Batman has been forever doomed by his nature. The trauma he witnessed at the age of eight has – up to now – largely excluded him from ever having a childhood, a teendom, an early-twenties. He is suspended in a crotchety, grumpy middle-age. Some people like that about Batman. Miller wrote Year One in the eighties when there was a prolific representation of young people in the media – their lifestyle, their fashion, their music (MTV started broadcasting in 1981). In other words, there was a strong youth culture at the time. But in Year One there is no trace of this; younger people may as well not exist. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that his Batman is ever going to team-up with a younger person. Miller effectively drowns Robin in a hessian sack like a newborn kitten because Year One is all about the writer’s own Dynamic Duo; the grown-up, manly-men of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon – Dark Knight and Mr. Movember.

Furthermore, the transition between childhood and adulthood has not always meant the same thing or been represented in the same way. For 1939 Bruce, the concept of the rebellious teenager was not his experience of growing up. The dawning of young punkery seems set in our minds from 1950 onwards. This is an over-simplification. In reality there was rebellion and youth culture in the 30s but it was not as widely represented in the media of the time. Hence, if Bruce had first become Batman in the rock ‘n’ roll age he might have screamed at Alfred like James Dean does to his well-meaning elders in Rebel Without A Cause. Instead, the popular image of young people in the Golden Age revolved more around Andy Hardy movie-types; affable, clean-cut young men who had good relationships with their parents. College in thirties movies do not allude to the kind of raucousness of Animal House either. Instead, 30s college men dedicate themselves to study, to football and to close-harmony singing in barbershop quartets. Then when all this youthful niceness is done, 30s boys leave college and immediately take up jobs in American industries. bruce smokes pipeThey wear suits and smoke pipes. They marry quickly and settle down. No flat-sharing with your best friend, playing on the PS4 all night-long, chugging soda and doing each other ‘a solid’ like in Regular Show. Nope. You’re a man now, Bruce. You must put Arkham Origins down and go smoke your pipe at Wayne Industries.

If we look at Batman’s first appearance in Zero Year, there is a massive contrast: dirtbike

In the UK, we call this a dirt-bike. Young men ride these (mostly illegal) vehicles round our suburbs, rattling our teeth loose with the tremendous noise emitted from stinking, belching exhaust pipes. And older people shake their fists at them and shout, ‘They should be locked up, the lot of ‘em!’ or words to that effect.

Let us now consider the first appearance of the Batmobile in Zero Year. The Batmobile Zero Year message this vehicle conveys is ‘My owner has too much money and an over-active imagination!’ I guarantee that the first time Alfred saw this, he went away and quietly googled ‘How to tell if your boy is on drugs.’

And finally, here we have the face of Zero Year Bruce Wayne:

Batman haircutNow, that is a face my grandma would love. She would pat that face on the cheek and ask if it had eaten that day. Then she’d ignore its answer entirely and force it to sit down to tea and cake anyway. It is a baby-face, the face of a man who was once someone’s son, someone’s grandson. It is a 25 year-old face.

As well as looking young and driving ridiculous automobiles, Zero Year Batman acts his age. He gives bad guys the finger, he answers back and he goes against the advice of his parent-figure, Alfred. Therefore Zero Year represents a serious attempt to give Bruce a youth period, albeit still within the confines of canon – a man forced to eschew the normal experiences of growing-up to become the world’s greatest crimefighter. This emphasis on youth is why Zero Year is so fantastic and vital. Yes – DC Comics grasps at young people’s money, but Batman needs young people too. Without new readers, he would die along with his ageing readership. Furthermore, the young readers of today become the writers of tomorrow. They will bring their own ideas, their own experiences, their own meaning to Batman. The reason he has lasted for 75 years has as much to do with our own fan interpretation of him as it does from any marketing drive. So re-interpreting the Batman origin story, which is the fundamental feature of the character, also introduces him to a new generation for these purposes. And this process will be repeated, I guarantee.

The comics industry was born out of the basest of notions – profit. But because it is staffed by talented people like Snyder and Capullo, they make something beautiful out of it. Zero Year Batman is beautiful, though I’m sure its creators would laugh at that sentiment. Even though I am outside the target demographic, my Batman seems to have benefitted from Zero Year. I guess he wanted to know what it was like to be young.

Further Reading

Okay, if you haven’t already gathered, I am a bit of a fan of The New 52! Batman so I urge you to go read it. This post was not designed to go into laborious detail about the comic. Instead it was designed to get you thinking about some of the concepts that may go into making it.

I would therefore encourage you to go and read Batman. For the full back-catalogue of New 52! Batman, go to www.comixology.com or ask at your local comic book store – they may have remaining copies.

What ‘Golden Age’ actually means

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Do I need to emphasize to you that I am a fan of the Golden Age? I shouldn’t need to. After all, this office we’ve set up should provide all the proof you need of my devotion. The Golden Age is my age, the era that makes me smile the widest. With its bright colors and even brighter characters, it provides huge entertainment. And no-one has ever punched as hard as The Bat-Man.

So – having said all that, I’m going to turn it all on its head by saying:

The Golden Age is a bit rubbish.

“Woah!” you say, “What is this? What’s The Editor doing to our brain-pans here? I can’t take this confusion, man.”

Let The Editor explain; soothe your aching head. It all has to do with the true meaning of the term ‘Golden Age’, which I shall explain now.

We refer to comics in Ages. The time periods I give here are approximations and you should be aware that people disagree with the detail of exactly when they begin and end. But for our purposes that disagreement doesn’t matter too much. When people refer to the Golden Age they cite the late 1930s to end of the 1940s. The Silver Age covers 1950 to 1970 and then we get the Bronze Age from 1970-1985/6. I’ve even seen people refer to the post-85 age as the ‘Iron Age’ or even ‘The Dark Age’. What is the common theme here? Well, as time goes on, these metallic descriptions decrease in ‘preciousness’. Gold-silver-bronze-iron – the value of the material gets worse as time goes by. So, the non-comic reader would be forgiven for thinking that this means that the quality of the related comics must get worse as time goes by also.

But this is wrong. It is misleading. In fact, I would argue that in our so-called Iron Age of today or the Bronze Age of the mid-80s, the number of quality comics (in terms of story writing and art work) has never been higher. If we review Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One published in 1986 against Detective Comics #27 1939, the idea that there was anything ‘Golden’ about Kane and Finger’s Batman in comparison to Miller’s is a bit of a joke. The 1939 plot is ludicrous – Bruce Wayne just happens to get invited along to crime scenes by Commissioner Gordon, as though graceless socialites such as Wayne got to do those kind of things every day. And if the artist for Batman in 2013 – Greg Capullo –  offered up Bob Kane’s dome-headed lunk to DC editors Dan Didio and Jim Lee, I rather suspect that Mr Capullo would be asked to return to his drawing board to ‘have another go’.

So – the Golden Age overall, in terms of quality of art and writing, sucks. A more fitting description would be the Plastic Age – cheap, mass-produced, throw-away.

So – why do we refer to this age as Golden? Well, there are a host of things that set these eras apart, such as the instigation of the Comics Code, changes in art, subject matter, writers – lots of things. But one of the main features of the Golden Age was the sheer numbers of comics bought in the US. It was superhero boom-time. At a time before mass-access to the TV, comics were the main source of entertainment for children. They were cheap – just 10c – and plentiful. Here’s a few statistics:

  • By 1940, Superman comics were selling 1,250,000 per month.
  • In 1947, DC – or National Publications as it was then known – sold an average of 8,500,000 copies of its comics per month.
  • The best-selling DC line for October 2013 was Batman #24. It sold 124,584 copies, coming second in the comics league table.
  • Overall – the top 300 comics (all titles, all publishers) sold in October 2013 came to 7,760,000 copies.

The overall picture is that we buy far less comics today than we did in the Golden Age. And yet the comics to choose from are greater, the stories more varied, and the art on the pages is outstanding. We are blessed with a host of independent publishers who are raising the bar in terms of comic diversity. Hurrah! But we’re not purchasing as many in terms of comics made and published by people in the US.

Why is this? Certainly, in terms of a percentage of your income, comics are more expensive today. But we, especially children, have far more things to spend our money on. TV socked it to the Golden Age more than other commodity. Kids now had heroes visiting them at home, men and women who moved and came with sound and image, such as The Lone Ranger. Even more deadly to the comic book was animation – the cartoon that had been the feature before movies but now played out across TV sets.

So – the Golden Age is so because it glistened with gold of circulation numbers, of an American youth whose main preoccupation was reading Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (or Shazam! as he is known today). ‘Golden’ is a fair term to use for my enjoyment of them, but it isn’t fair to the creators of today who work hard, sometimes for no pay at all when they self-publish across the internet. And this gets to me. It makes me sad because there are stories out there that deserve recognition but aren’t getting the numbers.

My final comment is: BUY COMIC BOOKS. Don’t just read people’s reviews or sites such as mine; I’m not writing this blog as a substitute for you spending a few dollars or pounds on this stuff. It is easy to substitute unnecessary expenditure elsewhere to buy comics you like. Such as, I don’t buy fashion magazines anymore – they cost £4.00 a pop and merely seek to tell me that I must be a size zero and six-foot tall in order to enjoy any kind of quality of life. I’m not saying that Wonder Woman’s physique is any less attainable, but at least she punches hard; a talent that I am pretty sure I can aspire to.

Buy comics. Keep comics alive. Let’s recognize the potential of our time. Let us make our age The Platinum Age.

Notes and further reading

I am not the only person to take these Age criteria to task. People who research comic books create their own terms, descriptions and criteria to lend usefulness and some truth to the things they study. A good example of this is to be found in The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture by Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith.